Exodus 24:12-18, Ps 99 2 Peter 1:16-21, Matthew 17:1-9
Moses has gone up to the Mountain. In our Old Testament lesson Moses along with Joshua head up to the holy mountain. The top of it is covered in clouds and there is drama- thunder and lighting. We do not yet know at this point in the story to know what is happening up there, but what we do know is that Moses has an encounter with God. Heʻs there for 40 days and 40 nights and while in Godʻs presence receives the law. A few chapters down the road in Exodus Chapter 34 we read of Moses coming back down the mountain and the Bible describes his skin as glowing. Clearly, an encounter with God is life-changing.
The first followers of Jesus saw him as the new Moses. Jesus was the new lawgiver. Thus in a similar mystical event, Jesus also goes up to the mountain with James and John and there has his encounter with God.
The appearance of Moses and Elijah represents Godʻs anointing finger upon Jesus. And then just as Moses went down into the valley from the mountaintop so does Jesus. He will go to deliver the people into a NEW promised land.
But what are we to make of this story of transfiguration? As I mentioned Jesus as a new Moses and a New Elijah- he is the lawgiver and the greatest among the prophets for a new age of understanding, a new era in Godʻs story of Salvation. But Jesus is not Moses or Elijah- That time is over. Jesusʻ mission is not in a temple or a mountaintop, or a specific location. Jesusʻ ministry is not a ministry where people come to him, but a ministry where the primary act of worship is going WITH him INTO the world.
Let me unpack that a bit. When Jesus was on the mountaintop and with Peter, James and John, and they witnessed the transfiguration, what did Peter want to do? He says. “Letʻs build some tents here.” He doesnʻt strictly say this, but what he is saying is that letʻs mark this place, where people can come and see the tents one for Jesus, one for Moses and one for Elijah so they can pay their respects.
We do this all the time, and we call these sites Churches. There are hilltops, valleys, and holy sites across the world. All of them- places where people go to pray and perchance have their own encounter with God. Who would have thought? This is our tent of meeting, this here is our tent that serves as itʻs memorial to the life and teaching of Jesus.
But the challenge for all of us to see beyond this tent- see beyond these church walls. Because as much as we would like to live here all the time and be our own community, we canʻt. We have other obligations- jobs, commitments, mortgages, and so forth. For many, years I would go to the Mount Calvary Monastery in Santa Barbara. It was run by the Benedictine Angiclan brothers of the Order of the Holy Cross. The monastery was on the top of a beautiful hill that overlooked the pacific ocean and the Channel Islands. It was a place so beautiful it was always hard to leave. But the brothers did it all the time. Part of their work was hosts of the retreat house for pilgrims like me, but their mission work was really off the mountain, down in the “valley”- out in the world.
Peter is wanting to build the tents wanted to find a way to preserve the moment.
I really love Peter for that very reason. He is so human. He is symbolic of all that is real about us as human beings. We believe and yet have doubt, we confess Jesus as Lord and yet can also deny him. Despite his shortcomings Jesus chooses him to continue his work on earth.
Peter wants to preserve the moment. And how many of us do this every single time. Now that we have these things (phones) we try to preserve the moment as IF by NOT taking a picture … the event never happened. Hike to an overlook- phones out – selfie! I baked a loaf of bread and yes I took a picture of it and posted it on Instagram and Facebook. I am not dismissing the need to hold and preserve memories for posterity like we did once upon a time in photo albums- that too is important. But I fear that with these things, we are so desperate to capture and hold on these and other moments and sometimes I think in doing so we do ourselves a disservice because we lose what these things mean to us and the impact they have. This was Peter’s dilemma? How was it possible to capture this moments and preserve it for posterity. Peter wasn’t wrong to want to do this he was trying to honor the moment in the best way he knew. But for Jesus there was more to be done- he could not and was not going to stay on the mountain. Following this transfiguration.
The story of the transfiguration and Moses’ ascent into the clouds invite us to ask: How do we capture our encounters with God? Anyone who has been on a pilgrimage of any kind whether that is a spiritual pilgrimage or the once in a lifetime trip to Disneyworld or to view one of the natural wonders of the world, we come away from such experiences different than from when we began. When Christ gathers us around this altar in the Eucharist we are not living or reliving a digital moment.
Rather, metaphorically, we are on that mountain. We hear God’s voice telling us to listen to the one we bear witness to who is the Beloved Messiah. And as a result, we are changed by it. We are touched by God’s grace and we can never be the same.
There is however this great temptation to think then that this is where we find Jesus and having found Jesus, it’s our task to take Jesus out into the world.
In his address to all the bishops in the Anglican communion at Lambeth, Bishop Rowan Williams (Archbishop of Canterbury) told them that it was typical of our Christian life to believe that WE needed to take the baby Jesus by the hand and lead him out into the world. There is fallacy and sin in such a belief in that God must be protected by us.
Instead, he offered an image that we are to leave the safety of our booth like churches and follow Jesus into the world.
This is the last Sunday in the season of Epiphany, and this Wednesday, Ash Wednesday we will mark our foreheads with a sign of our mortal nature. Epiphany has always been about the revelation of Jesus, the Light of the World and the incarnation of God, Epiphany has been about the calling and the gathering of the disciples, and now Epiphany draws to a close with the Transfiguration- a moment of light, and revelation, and calling.
When we come way from communion, whether or not we feel it, or know it, or even want or care, we leave this place different in some way than when we came in. We may not fully understand the transformation that takes place, but take place it does. That is Grace: we may not fully understand the transformation that takes place, but take place it does.
The ineffable mystery that is before us leaves us in awe and serves as food for the journey that calls us not to remain on this mountain, but sends “us now into the world in peace.” And into the world, we go- descending from the mountain; our faces shining because we too have been transfigured; having been in the presence of God. Amen.
The Rev. Daniel L. Leatherman is priest in charge of St. Timothy's Episcopal Church.